Panauti is one of three municipalities of Kavrepalanchok district in the central region of Nepal, the other two being Banepa and Dhulikhel. Situated about 32 km south-east of Kathmandu, at the junction of the confluence of the Roshi and Punyamati Rivers, and believed to be located on a single rock, this historical Newar town is one of the oldest settlements in Kathmandu Valley. You will find plenty of pagoda-type and other religious shrines all over the town, with most of the monuments, temples, and sattals (community shelters) being made of terracotta.
The temples, with their gilded roofs, carved wooden pillars, elaborate carvings, and wide courtyards impart an Eastern mysticism. The remains of the old durbar square can still be seen in the center of the town. Once described as a town having more temples than houses, and more deities than inhabitants, this medieval town can proudly claim to be the fourth most important site in Nepal, after the three ancient cities of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur.
The merging of six neighboring villages—Panauti, Malpi, Taukhal, Subbagaun, Sunthan, and Khopasi—in 1997 resulted in the Panauti municipality of today, which occupies an area of 33,78 sq km, and has a population of around 30,000 speaking three different dialects. The Newars, of course, dominate, and the town is thus rich in Newar culture, including numerous festivals, many of which are similar to those celebrated in Kathmandu, while a few are unique to the town itself.
Panauti also offers a spectacular panorama of the Himalayas when viewed from Gorakhnath Hill, a 15-minute walk uphill to the northeast of the town. From here, one also gets an wonderful overall view of the small fish-shaped town, which from east to west is less than one kilometer in length, and about half that from nortrh to south at the widest part. The town is surrounded by the two rivers, Roshi and Punyamati, running from west to east, and converging at the eastern end of the town, where the famous Triveni Ghat is situated.
According to legend, Panauti was founded in A.D. 1082. A scripture with golden script dated A.D. 1385, located within the Indreshwor Temple, states that King Hari Singh Dev (of the erstwhile Mithila kingdom) founded the town after fleeing from Simrangadh in the terai. During the Malla period, Panauti was a protectorate of King Ananta Malla (A.D. 1274-1307). Later, King Bhupitendra Malla, the king of Bhaktapur, is said to have given Panauti as adowry to his sister. In A.D. 1763, Panauti was annexed to greater Nepal by King Prithvi Narayan Shah..
Panauti has several unique features to its credit, such as the traditional Newari confection called ‘yo:mari’ made for a mixture of treacle and sesame seeds wrapped in stupa-shaped rice dough, which is said to have originated here. As mentioned before, the town is believed to be situated on a single massive rock, because of which the town has never been affected severely by earthquakes. Panauti is also the birthplace of King Ansuverma, an illustrious king of the Licchhavi period, and one of the greatest patrons of art and culture in the country’s history. Its ancient history and the presence of numerous Buddhist and Hindu shrines, testifying to the richness of its culture, makes Panauti one of the valley’s most important medieval sites.
While most festivals celebrated here are the same as in Kathmandu, there are some that are celebrated with special gusto in Panauti. Jya Punhi, which is celebrated in May-June, and known also as Panauti Jatra, is a chariot festival held at the end of the monsoon season every year, when statues of different deities from the temples are taken around the city in wooden chariots, beginning and ending in the old durbar square.
The month-long Makar Mela is held once every 12 years at the sacred confluence of three rivers, two actual (Roshi and Punyamati), and one imaginary (Lilawati, which is said to be visible only to a lucky few). This festival attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims, who come to take a holy bath that will cleanse them of past sins.
Yomari Punhi is celebrated in November-December on the full moon day after the rice harvest, with the worshipping of Annapurna, the goddess of grains. According to legend, once upon a time a married couple, Suchandra and Krita, first experimented with a fresh yield of rice from their field to make a new delicacy. They called it yo:mari (tasty bread). On this day, kids go house to house to ask for yo:mari from housewives.
Navdurga Festival, celebrated in mid-April every year, involves mask dances performed by dancers from Bhaktapur over a period of three days. The Namobuddha Festival in September is held in Namobuddha, the sacred site where a prince once offered the flesh of his own body to a starving tigress and her cubs, the ultimate example of compassion and sacrifice.
The two-day festival of Achhyaya Tritiya is held in May at the Triveni Ghat, when Newar girls between the ages of 7 to 13 undergo a coming-of-age ritual called Bel Bibah, during which they are symbolically married to the wood apple (bel). This signifies that they will never have to face the social rigors of being a widow in their lifetime even if their real husband dies before them, because they are still married to the ‘bel’, which actually represents some god.
Sitinakha, held in June-July, is a festival in which members of Newar families gather once a year in the home of their birth to worship the family deity. Ghantakarna, or Gathe Mangal, held in July-August, heralds many important Newar festivals in the days ahead. People put iron rings on their fingers, and hammer iron nails into door lintels to drive away evil spirits, such as Gathe Mangal, one of the most evil.
Gai Jatra, in August, is an eight-day-long festival in remembrance of dead relatives. Those who have had a death in the family within the past year bring a cow (real or an impersonation in a costume), and go around the city in a colorful parade. In October-November, on the day of Indra Jatra, Panauti inhabitants rejoice in the Devi Nach, a masked dance that is said to have originated in Panauti. Masked dancers representing different gods, goddesses, demons, and animals perform vigorous dances throughout the day. Other festivals like Dashain, Tihar, Holi, Shivaratri, etc. are also observed with great enthusiasm.